PleaseRobMe: Using Location-Sharing Apps Compromise Security?
Posted by Elmer in Geek on February 18, 2010

It's becoming a trend to use location-based social media applications such as Foursquare or Gowalla to update "where I am" using mobile devices. With Foursquare, a user is awarded points upon checking in at certain venues on weekends or non-business hours. When that user has checked in more than anyone else on separate days (in addition to having a profile photo), he or she will be crowned "Mayor" of that venue, until someone else dislodges him or her and earns the title.


Did you just imply in Foursquare that you're house is empty? I have signed up as a Foursquare user, but never tried using such service because of device constraints. However, I also thought that while my friends are using them, I am wondering what real benefit does these location-based applications bring them besides meeting friends? On the other hand, does using these apps provide hints to robbers or burglars?

Enter, an application that collects data from Foursquare, Google Buzz and other similar services. As the website logo's robber motif suggests, the purpose of the website is simple: to list down feeds from Foursquare and Twitter about people who tell everyone where they are in the list of "opportunities". Each feed starts of with "left home and checked in about a minute ago"  plus location revealed by their location-based phone application. In other words when I am at Times Square in Causeway Bay, that doesn't necessarily mean robbers are going there and rob me. It means robbers are aware that I am not home so that's where might be heading to -- assuming I live on my own.

Even before geo social networking became popular, similar compromised security incidents have already happened. Israel Hyman, a video podcaster, shared via Twitter about he and his family's excursion away from home. When he returned home, he found out that his house has been burglarized. While his Twitter feed may not necessarily have given any hint to the burglars -- his home may have been burglarized even without him posting that tweet -- it can now be used as a possible cause.

Some people are unwittingly fond of sharing vacation plans or other sensitive information through Facebook, Twitter or any application open for everyone to read. Worse, these people don't even know who are they sharing these sensitive information to. For others clever enough to hatch identity theft schemes, innocent or careless social networking users are the ones who end up as victims.

I believe the creators of PleaseRobMe did not launch this website as a means invite robbers to invade empty houses of certain geo social networking application users. It was built to raise awareness that while sharing is a good thing, over sharing can be dangerous. And to those would-be robbers and burglars: be careful. Not everyone who uses Foursquare tell you where exactly they are.

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